Wonderful Versus Wonder-Free Companies

Should leaders who want to create high-performing companies try to foster feelings of wonder in their employees? The evidence suggests that the answer is yes.
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Imagine two companies that make identical products or offer identical services. Company A is run by an executive who reads a lot of economics and who is fanatical about aligning incentives and using money to shape the behavior of employees. Company B is run by an executive who has read Arianna Huffington's new book Thrive--along with the associated literature in positive psychology--and who is fanatical about creating a company that brings out the best in all employees. What would it feel like to work in these two companies?

Social relationships would, of course, be very different. By focusing on financial compensation, company A would most likely foster a great deal of competition among employees, who would work hard to increase the metrics upon which their pay is based. They would evaluate their own performance--and the adequacy of their pay--relative to their fellow employees. Company B, in contrast, would most likely foster a sense of "one for all, all for one." It might use friendly competition between teams within the company, because research shows that intramural competition tends to increase love of one's fellow group-members without triggering a counterbalancing dislike of the other group. But in company B, they try to avoid pitting individuals against each other, and they elicit hard work from employees (and management) by appealing to many motives beyond material interest.

Once you know the nature of the social relationships within each company, you can predict a lot about the emotional profile of daily life as well. Many are obvious: More suspicion, resentment, and envy in company A; more trust, warmth, and family-feeling in company B. But here's one that's less obvious: Company A would be a wonder-free zone, while company B would be a wonder-full place to work. By "wonder" I am referring to a little-studied class of positive emotions that are pleasurable responses elicited by beauty, excellence, and novelty in our physical and social environments. Arianna defines wonder in a similar way on p. 7: "our sense of delight in the mysteries of the universe, as well as the everyday occurrences and small miracles that fill our lives."

I study the emotional foundations of morality. My early research was on the ways that disgust functions as a moral emotion - a reaction to seeing people do things that are sleazy, ugly, or degrading. That work led me to ask about the opposite emotional reaction - the one we get when we see people do things that are noble, beautiful, and uplifting. Everybody knows this feeling, it turns out, but the scientific literature on emotion had no word for it. Based on a letter in which Thomas Jefferson described this feeling in detail, and then said that it "elevates" a person's sentiments, I started calling the emotion "moral elevation." I and my students discovered that watching short videos about morally beautiful actions, or recalling such actions that one has witnessed, has a variety of effects on people, including making them more loving, warm, and open. Elevation makes lactating women pick up their babies and hug or nurse them - most likely because it triggers a burst of the hormone oxytocin.

Studying moral elevation forced me to study a variety of related emotions - such as those we feel in response to extraordinary natural beauty, or in response to extraordinary human skill or achievement (which we refer to as admiration, even though people often use the word admiration to refer to acts of virtue as well). My colleague Dacher Keltner and I believe that these emotions are all members of an overarching emotion family, which we called "awe," but "wonder" is an equally good term.

People vary in their capacity for wonder. Some people are highly responsive to the beauty, virtue, skill, and talent all around them; others are largely immune. But most people are somewhere in the middle, and their tendency to feel wonder will be highly influenced by the environment and the relationships they are embedded in. If you make money the measure of all things, and if you foster competition among individuals--as in company A--you'll make it harder for people to experience wonder. Excellence in a competitor triggers fear or envy, not admiration. But if you make people feel connected to each other--feel that they are all in the same boat, or all on the same journey--then excellence anywhere is a cause for celebration and emulation. Employees in company B are more likely to feel the full range of wonder-related emotions, including moral elevation, admiration for skill and talent, awe at natural beauty, and gratitude toward one another.

Should leaders who want to create high-performing companies try to foster feelings of wonder in their employees? The evidence suggests that the answer is yes. Not only is wonder a component of The Third Metric, but it has been shown to move the meter on the other three components: well-being, wisdom, and giving. You can see the collected evidence at www.ElevationResearch.org; here are a few highlights:

Experiences of moral elevation have been shown to increase altruism and interpersonal helping, and to motivate more volunteering for charitable work. It has been shown to reduce racial prejudice, and also homophobia. These are obviously important effects in fostering trust, inclusiveness, and cooperation in diverse environments. Additionally, leaders who are fair and self-sacrificing elicit better "organizational citizenship" from their employees, and one study found that the causal mechanism for this effect is moral elevation. Great leaders trigger feelings of elevation. Also, experiences of moral elevation increase people's tendencies to enact their other moral values, making it easier to maintain an ethical workplace.

  • Experiences of awe in response to natural beauty cause people to be more helpful and trusting, and also to feel more spiritual, and more present in the moment, both of which may be contributors to enhanced wisdom, well-being, and giving.

  • Experiences of admiration for skill and talent leads to feelings of energy and a desire to emulate the admirable person. Admiration also motivates people to work harder on achieving their own goals.

    In conclusion: wonder-full companies are surely wonderful places to work, and there is every reason to believe that they are wonderful ways to create value over the long term, for shareholders and for society. Let us hope that more leaders read Ariana's book and include fostering wonder in their metrics for success.


    Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and a professor of business ethics at New York University Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, and of The Righteous Mind.

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